Solid Foundation, Strong Mind, and Steady Effort
It’s been a full month since I raced Ironman 70.3 Coeur d’Alene. I’ve road-tripped, vacationed, celebrated a birthday, recovered real hard, and eased back into training. As performance-hungry athletes, we go through many cycles of race and recovery in our lives, but if we pay attention to our attitudes, circumstances, and how our bodies talk to us, each cycle is a unique learning opportunity. My experience racing the Ironman 70.3 at Coeur d’Alene proved that a strong fitness foundation is fundamental, that mental toughness gets better with age, and that recovery is of hardcore importance for older athletes who want to push themselves.
I positioned myself at the 35-37-min finish time. I don’t know why I did this because I know I can do a 1.2 mi swim in under 35 min. I somehow psyched myself out on race morning, telling myself to just ease into it and take the swim easy. I’m never going to hang with the super fast swimmers, and if I try, I can totally blow up and have a panic attack. If I hang back, I get to just play it safe. Haven’t I learned anything at all? There’s no need to play it safe. Take chances! But anyway … the swim was fine. I’m a fan of the rolling start, as I know with damn-near certainty that I won’t get kicked or punched due to there being enough space to create my safety swim bubble. I swam easy for the first half and then picked it up after I turned the corner to return to shore. I was passing people the entire time and never felt tired. I need to try to swim with the faster people at some point in my life and take advantage of that draft!
As I exited T1 and mounted my bike, I was super excited to be racing my bike. I love pushing myself on my bike and am always wanting to see if I can push a little harder. I started settling in to the upper limits of my power targets that my coach, Dustin, suggested. I chose the upper limits because the range was determined with my trainer sessions in mind, and I knew the higher power numbers would feel easier on the road than on the trainer. I also knew where my heart rate should hover, and bingo, all the numbers were where they “should” be and I felt really strong. I was passing people like crazy (all of those people I should have been swimming with!!) and getting excited to push hard on the upcoming hills. Dustin’s advice was to not be afraid to push hard on the hills, so this was my mantra for the entirety of the bike. I hit the first small hill with a 20W surge from my average power target and felt exhilarated but knew that I was probably bordering on too high. I used a combination of power, HR, and RPE (rate of perceived exertion) to find that space where I was being aggressive but not stupid. The first hour went by in a flash, and then I was on the highway, ready to meet the major hills on this course.
Holy Moly Hills!!! The first climb was 2 mi at a ~5% grade, a reality check for what this course was all about. I accepted my mission and shifted my attention toward my nutrition plan. Since the run was going to be hot, I anticipated not wanting to eat much more than a gel (maybe 2), Gatorade, and water on the run, which meant that I had to focus on getting calories and hydration in on the bike. I rode with 3 bottles (2 in bottle cages and 1 Torpedo between my aero bars). I filled the bottles with 3 scoops of Tailwind each (1 more scoop each than my usual amount), and kept plain water in the Torpedo. I alternated sips of Tailwind and plain water, every 5-7 minutes. I also took bites of a Lara Bar every few minutes during the second hour on the bike and made sure to finish it within the hour, as it would soon be too risky to ingest solid foods. My bike nutrition was on point. I peed twice (on the bike) and finished all of my liquids and my stomach was feeling solid. I was getting excited to run.
Those power numbers were getting much harder to hold in the last 10 miles of the course. I also was so focused on my effort and following my nutrition plan that it took me awhile to realize that we were facing a SIGNIFICANT headwind on the way back, which also explained why things were feeling a little harder! I got another good confidence boost as, late in this ride, I was passing a ton of people on the hills. I was tired and they were too. I’ll never know what any of them were thinking, but my coach’s brain would guess that they were thinking about running and that they didn’t want to destroy their legs on this last massive hill because they wanted to “save their legs” for the run. Well, I say, legs be damned, let’s give this sucker everything we have and deal with the run when it’s time to run! (NOTE: I did this with my coach’s advice and confidence in me to be able to push on the hills and still be able to perform on the run. It’s a good lesson to learn about coaching. When your coach believes in you, it’s a freeing feeling to trust them instead of having to rely on self-confidence when things get tough during a race.) I looked at my time and saw that I was likely going to break 3 hrs, but needed to keep pushing (could I break 2:50?).
The descent into town was nice and easy, though I know it was not for a lot of other people. This part of the course was marked as a “no passing zone” which is spectacularly frustrating if you are a confident descender who gets stuck behind timid descenders. Thankfully, no one was around me and I could just go hard on the descent, which I partially credit for coming in comfortably under 3:00. If I got stuck behind someone, this could have easily cost me another 2 minutes.
There is always a little bit of worry at the end of a hard bike ride about how your legs will feel as you take those first couple steps after your dismount. This worry is exaggerated during a long race if you let yourself think about the fact that you are about to run a half marathon. To avoid anxiety about this, I don’t think about running 13.1 miles as I enter T2. I just celebrate getting through the bike healthy, and enjoy the feeling of my feet hitting the ground. I take note of where I’m sore or stiff - not that there is much to do about it at that moment, but these sensations teach me where I may need to focus more of my training and/or recovery in the future. I allowed positive thoughts to overtake my T2 and sprung happily onto the run course.
Within 10 seconds on the run course, I had a great feeling about this run. My heart rate was higher than I wanted it to be, but NOT higher than I expected it to be coming out of T2. Also as expected, I didn’t “feel” like my HR was high, which is an immediate reminder to myself to be patient - this is NOT the part of the race to “run by feel” and those who do usually blow up. So I monitored my heart rate, tried to bring it down a few beats, or at least made sure that it didn’t increase. My mission for the run was to stay as steady as possible - with the mantra that “it’s not the fastest people who win, it’s those who slow down the least” (Somebody smarter than me said this, but I can’t seem to find who that smart person is, so this quote will have to remain anonymous.)
The sun was getting hot (it was ~80 degrees) and my plan was to alternate water and Gatorade at each aid station, and pour water over my head at every aid station. It was easier than I expected to stay cool, as the aid stations had ice, which I put down my bra and my shorts until they melted and I hit the next aid station where I could refresh my ice supply. This run course also goes through a lot of neighborhoods, so there were several kids outside their homes with hoses, spraying athletes off, which is always SO SO MUCH appreciated! With my stomach in check, calories stocked from the bike, and cool-down help from volunteers, I was feeling pretty great about this run. My first mile clocked in at 8:45, which I was disappointed to see, knowing that I was going to have to work to keep it at just this, when I was hoping to be closer to 8:30 - but I knew it would be foolish to chase a pace on such a hot day and that I should just be running by HR, and whatever pace that meant for that day, was just the best I could do that day. It wasn’t a representation of how well I trained or how good or bad of an athlete I am, it was just a scientific fact of the day.
The run continued uneventfully, with me executing my cooling and hydration plan like a robot. The first loop of the course flew by. I saw Barry with Rocky & Fritz before I knew it at mile 6, which was a great pick-me-up to start the second loop. I had a gel at mile 7, at which point I told myself, “Ok, it’s go time - you’re feeling great, now take it up another gear.” Happily, my legs obeyed this command, but my stomach did not and nausea ensued. I really didn’t want to totally go for it at this point because my run had been so consistent, there was no need to finish sloppy at any cost, so I decided to finish steady. Steady and strong is what I did best that day. I didn’t really get uncomfortable until mile 11 at which point it was easy to think about running 4 x 800 rather than 2 miles, so I played the 4 x 800 mind game and it was strong and steady to the finish.
As I made the last turn for the finish chute, I tried once again to pick up the pace - you know, to look good for the camera ;-) but there was that nausea again, and it certainly would be unimpressive to puke on myself 100 meters from the finish line, so I opted for the steady, smiling finish line photo rather than the puking finish photo. Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to attempt the latter.
Things That Went Well
Compartmentalizing my to-do list during race week and staying focused on getting work done first, then clearing my schedule to focus on packing and mentally preparing for the race. This helped me sleep and eat better during race week, including the day before the race, I took a 1-hr nap!
Being familiar with the race logistics and how the course related to town made it low-stress for race check-in, transition set-up on race morning, and visualizing myself crossing the finish line.
Taper - hard, but short, workouts every day leading up to race day felt awesome. I didn’t experience the usual jitters of losing fitness, and felt completely rested.
Bike nutrition plan was on point.
Things That I'll Do Differently Next Time
Push harder on the bike. I felt proud of the effort I put out there, but I can go harder. I need to watch my cadence, as I spent a lot of time grinding in the 60-70 range, where I should have been in the 80+ range (even on the hills), and closer to 90+ on the flats.
Position myself at a faster start time on the swim. Ergh! I feel like this is one of those lessons learned that I always state, but something happens to my confidence on race morning and I opt for the slower start time positioning. If I could swim with people slightly faster than me, I could catch some feet to draft off of, rather than weave my way through people the entire race.